A recent shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, shows that domestic terrorism is a persistent and deadly threat to the United States, albeit a low-level one. On the evening of June 17, a lone gunman shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that is attended by a prominent and historically African American congregation. Three people survived the attack, including a woman who the shooter intentionally did not shoot but instead charged with delivering a message.
The shooter's decision to spare one of the victims so she could relay a message would seem to indicate that the shooter was motivated by race. Though the contents of the message have not yet been released to the public, law enforcement officers with access to the message, such as Charleston's police chief, have been quick to label the attack a hate crime. Some survivors have also reported that the shooter was motivated by race.
Police have already identified a suspect in the case. Authorities arrested 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof of Eastover, South Carolina, in North Carolina on June 18. He currently awaits arraignment.
If the shooting spree was indeed a hate crime, it was most likely conducted by a lone gunman who was not specifically instructed to conduct the attack by any formal group. White supremacist groups in the United States embraced the concept of leaderless resistance as an operational model long before jihadists did. (The 1988 Fort Smith sedition trial prompted white supremacists to shift to leaderless resistance by revealing just how heavily law enforcement had penetrated their groups.)
The Charleston attack serves as a reminder that the United States must continue to contend with domestic terrorism, despite the fact that it tends to be a low-level threat. Most perpetrators of this sort of crime, no matter their ideological bent, tend to operate as lone actors or within small groups. They also usually lack the capacity to plan and execute sophisticated, spectacular attacks; instead, they typically conduct low-level bombings or armed assaults against soft targets. Domestic terrorists who are able to conduct spectacular, high-casualty attacks such as those orchestrated by Timothy McVeigh or Anders Breivik are the exception rather than the rule. Still, the Charleston attack demonstrates the impact that even a lone gunman conducting a simple attack can have.
In many ways, the implications of domestic terrorist threats are essentially the same as of more publicized grassroots jihadist threats. First, it is critical for police and the public to remember that terrorist attacks do not appear out of thin air. Regardless of motivation or ideology, individuals planning an attack follow a discernable planning cycle. That cycle contains points at which the attack can be detected and stopped before it is carried out. Thus, it is important to maintain situational awareness to detect suspicious activities.
This brings us to the topic of security systems. Based on photographs of the gunman released by the police, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had a closed-circuit television security system. In many cases, security systems can actually provide a false sense of security because people assume the systems make them safe, removing the need to practice good situational awareness. In this way, security systems can actually become an obstacle to effective preventive security. Unfortunately, the presence of security systems are not normally very effective in stopping attacks, although they are often helpful in the investigation that takes place after a crime has occurred. Therefore, it is important that training in situational awareness and attack recognition be made a critical component of any security plan.